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Teenage Sexuality and Contraceptive Use: An Update

Tom W. Smith
National Opinion Research Center
Talking Points

  • From at least the 1960s onward, premarital sexual activity expanded. The proportion of teens who were sexually active increased, the age of first sexual intercourse declined, and the number of sexual partners grew.  Finally, in the 1990s there is evidence that this trend has run its course and probably reversed. For example, the General Social Surveys (GSS) find that from 1988-90 to 1991-95 the mean number of sexual partners for the 18-24 age group significantly decreased from 2.4 to 1.7.  But while significant, this recent shift is but a slight pulling back from a historically high level of premarital sexual activity.  For example, during the 1990s the mean number of sexual partners during the last five years ranges from 4.9 partners for those 18-19 to 6.5 for those 24 years old.
  • Likewise, in the late 1980s and 1990s there has been an appreciable rise in the use of condoms.  Various studies show a 50% increase in condom use.  But even after the rise, safer sex practices are far from universal.  For example:

      a) among all 18-24 year olds, 10.5% reported that they had no sexual partner closer than someone who was a "casual date or pick-up";
      b) among unmarried people 18-24 only 45% used a condom when they last had sex; and 
      c) among those whose most recent partner was not someone they were in an ongoing relationship with, only 56% used a condom.

  • Society conveys messages to teens about sex in various ways:  via parental advise, sex education courses, pop culture, commercial advertisements, religious teachings, etc.  Most of these messages have become more permissive over the last several decades.  The audio, visual, and thematic input of pop culture is particularly pervasive and pretty simple.  Its basic message is "sex is good, sex is natural, just do it."
  • Slightly modifying this dominant permissive deluge is a safer sex undercurrent that cautions that sexual urges should be channeled by common sense and public health knowledge, if not by traditional morality.  Through public service announcements (PSAs), sex education about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), the occasional message about responsible sexual behavior on television shows, and from other entertainment media information on condoms and other safer sex practices, the message may have reached teenagers.  Coupled with the stark reality of high death level from AIDS and the high infection rate from other STDs, these messages have helped to moderate premarital sexual behavior.
  • In 1960 there was a relatively small interval between the onset of sexual activity and marriage.  Now there is a gap of nearly 10 years between these two events.  For women, the median age for first sexual intercourse in 1960 was 19 and the median age at first marriage was 20.3, an interval of only a little over a year.  By 1990, the median age at first sex was 16.9 for women, while the age at first marriage for women was 24.5, a gap of 7.6 years.  And for men, the contemporary gap is even greater, 10.6 years (median age at first marriage of 26.7; median age of first intercourse at 16.1).
  • Teenage sex is of concern for various practical reasons.  It is less responsible with
    • a) less consistent use of effective contraceptives;
      b) more unwanted pregnancies; 
      c) more abortions; 
      d) more nonmarital births;
      e) more STDs; and 
      f) probably more emotional harm.

  • However, maturity and sexual responsibility do not automatically kick in when teenagers turn 20.  By most measures, young adults are still involved in a lot of high-risk sexual activity and irresponsible behavior.
  • Marriage remains the great regulator of sexual behavior.  Number of sexual partners during the last five years falls from 5.7 for those 18-24 years old to 2.5 for those 35-44 years old.  Similarly, the number of sexual partners during the last year drops from 1.9 for those 18-24 to 1.2 for those 35-44 years old. This decline is largely the result of the rising percent married as age increases.
  • A major difficulty in regulating teenage sexuality (and premarital sexuality in general) is that under current conditions there is a very long gap between the biological onset of puberty (ages 12-14) and the typical age of first marriage (for women 24.5; for men 26.7).  If it is accepted that earlier marriage is not a practical or desirable alternative, then a substantial period of premarital sexual activity is inevitable. 
  • To minimize the various risks (e.g. STDs, unwanted pregnancies, single parenthood) that are associated with premarital sex, steps need to be taken to
    • a) delay the onset of sexual activity because sexual activity is often irresponsible and likely to be more harmful the younger the participants.  (On average, the older a person, the more sexually responsible he or she is.)  There is some evidence that progress may be made in this area.
      b) increase the responsibility level regarding sexual behavior because even raising the age at first sex back to 1960 levels would still leave on average a 5-7 year period of sexual activity prior to marriage

       


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